Adam's Café restaurateur serves up full English by day, Mediterranean by night.
How did you meet your husband Abdel?
We met in Paris. I was learning French so I went to Paris and got a job as PA to Howard Ronson, cousin of the infamous property developer Gerald Ronson. Howard was also in property and Abdel worked for him as a director. He was on call 24/7 and worked long hours but Abdel and Howard were very close. The Ronson family is Jewish but Howard treated Abdel like an adopted son. He used to take him gambling in Monte Carlo and they socialized together. Howard trusted Abdel with everything, even his babies, his two dogs Blackie and Lola, which Howard used to fly on Concorde. We were in Paris for six years. It was a lot of fun.
Mixed marriages were less familiar back then. How did people react?
Growing up I had a very independent streak. I wouldn't say I'm a rebel but I was never going to marry the boy next door. But I think it was a bit of a shock for both our families. I come from a Dutch Catholic family, van den Berg, and Abdel's father was the local Imam in Tunisia, but they could see we were serious and we had a lovely big wedding in London and soon had a family, three lovely children, Nadia, Adam and Mikhael, known as Mickey. They're 28, 26 and 25. Nadia is a consultant with DeLoitte, Adam is a barrister and Mickey works in IT. They're our greatest achievement. The café is named after Adam, the baby of the family when we moved here in 1989.
The bank manager hated semolina at school
so we didn't get the loan.
Having travelled so widely, if you didn't live here where would you choose?
We have a holiday home on Djerba, the Tunisian island where Abdel's from. It couldn't be more different from here. It's basically built on a plot of sand, very rural, palm trees, olive trees and close to the sea. The lifestyle is slow paced, traditional. Everyone wears a scarf and respects their elders. Education is high on the agenda, as it was for Abdel. I remember him waiting for the postman for our kids' school reports. Abdel's family believe in a strong family bond. We're both very family-minded. My father is the eldest of nine.
What led you to the restaurant business?
We left Paris and moved to Tunisia when Abdel got a job running a new marina and holiday complex in Monastir (Tunisia). He'd started life in Club Med so he knew that world. I got a job selling flats. Part of the complex was a Hyatt Hotel and I soon got to know how hotels work. It was a crash course in the food and drink industry. Then a tiny 12-room hotel, the Yasmin, came up on a management contract. We decided to run it together. At a trade fair back in the UK, I met a travel agent who liked the idea of a Tunisian hotelier with an English-speaking wife so he booked every room for the season which freed us up to concentrate on the hotel's restaurant. We specialised in quality local dishes and all the local Tunisians came to eat there and we got a good reputation so the holidaymakers came in coach loads for their authentic North African meal. We'd have parties of up to 200.
When you took over what is now Adam's Café in 1989, how did the Brits take to the relative rarity of a Tunisian restaurant in London?
When we bought this place it was a typical greasy spoon run by a lovely couple, Mike and Dora, who gave us a lot of advice, but basically they didn't think it needed to change because there's been a restaurant on this site since the 1880s. But we'd learnt a lot at the Yasmin and we had big plans. We needed a bigger kitchen and better facilities so we went to the bank and told the bank manager about our plans to introduce North African cuisine to London and he said, what's that? We told him that Tunisia's national dish is couscous and he'd never heard of it. He tried to repeat it and couldn't even pronounce it. It came out as cuckoo! I tried to explain what it was like but the only word I could think of to describe it, being a French speaker, was the French, la semoule. He thought I meant semolina and looked shocked. It turns out he hated semolina at school. We didn't get the loan. But with a little imagination and some theatrical props we made the front look very North African. We hung drapes in vibrant colours and put mosaics on the wall, but we had to take it all down in the morning to turn the place back into a café. It was all a bit Jekyll and Hyde. It was exhausting but it worked. This place has put a roof over our heads and food on our tables. It's seen us through three recessions.
What are the quintessential North African dishes?
Tajine, the lovely fragrant, Moroccan stew cooked in an earthenware pot with a tall, conical lid. Classic combinations are chicken with pickled lemons or lamb with prunes and almonds. ‘Brik à l’Oeuf’ is Tunisian street food, the finest, crispiest filo pastry encasing a softly poached egg. Fresh fish and seafood are really popular in Tunisia with its long Mediterranean coastline. We do giant prawns, fresh sardines and seabass from the grill as well as traditional fish couscous and stuffed baby calamari.
What spices do you use?
We use fresh coriander, ginger and saffron in the tajines. And cinnamon for sweetness. We use two secret ingredients from Tunisia – but they're secret.
Operating as an English café by day and a Tunisian restaurant by night, how do you maintain your stamina?
A siesta. It is a long day but it's not as bad as you think. For food, since the kids were little, six days a week we all eat meals in the restaurant. We still live above the shop so there's no travel. And Askew Road is a practical road to live on. We use the local doctor, dentist, plumbers, paint shop... There's everything on your doorstep, even two nice gift shops now, Cocktail and J W Beeton. I get my hair done round the corner at Cherry Red – the girls are lovely. As is Mallek from Askewine, a compatriot and loyal friend.
What are your and Abdel's roles?
Abdel opens up at 8am and I do the lunchtime shift. During the week we’ll have the builders for breakfast and very busy lunchtimes for people working close to Askew Road. Then on Saturday mornings we have local families and residents coming in for their big breakfast or hangover cure. After our afternoon break, we open the doors for dinner at 6pm having magically transformed into a North African-inspired Mediterranean bistro.
Who's responsible for the menu?
We do that together. I rarely cook although I have a cookbook fetish and often suggest we try this or that, though we always do our traditional dishes in an authentic way. We're famous for authentic Tunisian and Moroccan dishes. Nigella Lawson heard about us and came here the other week. I turned round and there she was. I was so shocked I was speechless. She loved the food and tweeted about it. We’ve just heard that we are winners of Time Out Love London Best Restaurant Award and also that we’re in The Sunday Times Best 100 Cheap Eats 2015.
If you weren't in the restaurant business, what would you do?
I always love meeting people so anything that offered that opportunity would be fun. I did some TV presenting once. We were on a cookery show with Loyd Grossman and we were using some harissa paste. He'd never tried it and swallowed a whole spoon. He turned puce but didn't make a fuss. He just said quietly, now that is hot.
Thank you, Frances. It's been a real pleasure to meet you.
Interviewed Nov 2015 by Jo Reynolds